The Gospel of Jesus
Sermon 2 December 2001
Thanksgiving is over. December is here. The holiday season is already in full swing. Some of my neighbors already have their Christmas trees up. Though Hanukah will soon be celebrated, it is a minor Jewish religious holiday. Jesus, as it has been said, is the reason for the season.
But who was this man whose birth will be celebrated around the world this month? What was his purpose? What was his message? What was his gospel, his "good news?"
The conventional wisdom is that Jesus was the son of God, the long awaited messiah predicted by the Jewish prophets, the Christ. The conventional wisdom is that the purpose of Jesus was to die for our sake so that we might have eternal life. You donít have to look hard or long to find a preacher who will tell you,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
But there has always been an alternative understanding of Jesus and his purpose. It is an understanding the pays more attention to Jesus before Easter than after. It is as an understanding that emphasizes following Jesus over worshipping him. It is an understanding that seeks to practice the religion of Jesus rather than a religion about Jesus. It is an understanding that was present in 16th century Italy, Poland, and Transylvania. Indeed throughout all of Western Europe, particularly in those times and places that enjoyed some degree of religious freedom, this alternative understanding has been represented. It is why the 16th Polish Socinians denied the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins. It is why the Transylvanian Unitarians for over four hundred years have inscribed "God is one" over the entrance to their churches. It is why the 19th century Universalists George DeBenneville and John Murray preached not hell and eternal damnation but the constant and eternal love of God.
If Jesus were to return, I think he would be appalled to see what has been made of his life and words.
I donít think he ever wanted us to worship him.
I donít think he imagined his death was some sort of penance that would satisfy a vengeful or angry God.
I donít believe he ever said or suggested that the only way to the realm of God is to believe that he was the son of God.
In my experience, it is easy to put aside the obvious fictions contained in the Gospels such as the virgin birth. It is also relatively easy, with the help of independent scholarship, to see how the differing accounts of Jesus owe more to the theological point of view of the gospel author than to the actual life or words of Jesus. Beginning in 19th century Germany and continuing today in the form of the Jesus Seminar, independent scholars have called into question much of what Jesus was purported to have said or done. They have convincingly demonstrated that he didnít say most of what was attributed to him. We know that none of the Gospels authors personally met or even saw Jesus. We know that Jesus didnít say he was the son of God. I am not going to review or defend these and other conclusions of independent scholarship, though, as I want to speak of a larger, broader challenge.
Once you have thrown out all the chaff, all the stuff of myth and legend, all the words that advance the theological agendas that came after Jesus, what do you have left?
What is left are the stories, deeds, and parables of a man who was transformed by his sense of the holy, his sense of the presence of God. What is left is an account of a man who lived his life by the light of the holy, a man who healed by virtue of his presence and his wisdom, a man who challenged and sought to replace the dead letter of the law with the spirit of the living loving God.
The challenge for me is not that of rejecting fundamentalisms and orthodoxies. I find that easy, in part because as a Unitarian Universalist and member of this religious community I am constantly encouraged to follow my own reason and conscience. No, the challenge for me is the invitation of Jesus that still rings true despite the distances of time and the differences of culture: his call to love God with all my strength and my neighbor as myself, his call to follow him and enter the realm of God.
I donít believe in a separate, all-knowing God, an omniscient, omnipotent being who knows if I have been bad or good. I donít believe in a God who is like an accountant that places marks besides our names for each and every good and evil deed. I donít believe in the God of Deuteronomy, a jealous God that punishes nations when they worship another or that intervenes in our battles with our enemies.
Nonetheless, I do believe in God. I believe that I am part of something larger than myself, a natural and all-encompassing system beyond my understanding or control, yet a system upon which I can nonetheless reliably depend. At special times I have felt the presence of the holy. I have, in the words of Schleiermacher, experienced a "revelation of the Infinite in the finite. I have felt, as he wrote, "that, in its highest unity, all that moves us in feeling is oneÖthat our being and living is a being and living in and through God."
The key element in my faith is not theory but experience. Religion is not something you do. It is not social action or community service, no matter how noble, far reaching or effective it may. Religion is also not something you think. It is not a theory or a doctrine. Religion is first and foremost an experience, something you feel. But as the theologian Anselm wrote, "He who has not experienced will not understand."
Religious experience is not transferable. You must experience it for yourself. No one can show it to you. No one can teach it to you. You have to see it for yourself. All anyone else can do is encourage you to look.
When I read the Gospels, even the truncated gospel of Thomas Jefferson, stripped of all miracles and ending when the stone is rolled up to the tomb, what makes Jesus special is the degree to which he was conscious of the holy, conscious of God.
Again, in the words of Schleiermacher, "Jesus was so aware of God, so attuned to God, that his awareness of God became the dominant principle in his life and thus controlled every aspect of his behavior. From this perspective, Christ redeems not by his sacrifice, his moral teachings, or the uniqueness of his person. Jesus redeems by making it possible for the consciousness of God to become the dominant principle in our lives, thus allowing us to resist doing what we know is wrong. Christ is able to implant this consciousness in us because he manifested so completely and perfectly one in whom the consciousness of God was fully and completely realized."
When Jesus invites us to follow him, we are being invited to follow him in having the consciousness of God become the most important part of our life. When we are faithful to that call, we enter the realm of God.
This is the good news that Jesus brought, the news that anyone of us can enter that realm, that nothing we have done can prevent us from having the consciousness of God become the dominant factor in our lives. When we experience this connection, this sense of being part of something greater than ourselves, this sense of participating in the infinite through the finite events of our daily life, we become free. With that freedom, we are able to confront the fears and worries that so often imprison us and deaden us and keep us from fully living.
Jerusalem was a place that Jesus feared. By all accounts, he avoided it for most of his ministry and when he finally did enter, did so with fear and foreboding. But he knew it was a challenge he must eventually face. He knew it was a place where his unique understanding of religion would get him in trouble. He knew it was a place where he couldnít keep still, no matter how dangerous it might be.
We all have our private Jerusalems. We all have places we fear to go, truths we dread admitting, situations we are tempted to avoid. But yet we know that if we are to be true to ourselves, true to our sense of justice, true to our sense of vocation, true to the beat of the drum that we alone may hear, we must not hide from what we are called to be or to do. Jerusalem is our unfinished business, our unrealized hopes and dreams, our silent yearnings. It the place we need to enter no matter how reluctant we may be.
In the play "The Death of a Salesman" by Arthur Miller, Willie Loman, the salesman, eventually commits suicide. After the funeral, a funeral which few attend, his wife wonders why he would kill himself now, just when the house was almost paid off, when all he needed was just a job with an ordinary salary. She talks of the good things in their shared life, the Sundays on the porch, the satisfaction he took in building the stoop out front. One of their sons later remarks, "He never knew who he was."
I suspect Willie Loman knew who he was but was afraid to be who he was. He choose the false security of the hale, hearty, and well-met salesman over the insecurity of being who he really was, perhaps a carpenter who built front porch stoops. In an interview, Arthur Miller said he was unhappy with the first filmed version of the play because the actor, Fredrick March, portrayed Willie as a psycho. But in Millerís eyes, Willie Loman was not a psycho but an ordinary neurotic, someone just like you or me.
We all have our Jerusalems. We have all been tempted to give up on our dreams and settle for the sure thing. We have all been tempted to step back when we knew we should have stepped forward. We have all been tempted to accept the broken parts of our lives rather than take the risk of trying to mend them and make them whole.
When we first fall in love, we imagine that there is nothing we need hide or withhold from our loved one. But as time goes on, we often find ourselves pulling back, hiding our true feelings, keeping busy, whether it be apart or together, lest we have to face the fearful prospect of dropping our masks and facing the unpredictability of intimacy.
Jerusalem is all the rationalizations we make, the "if onlys," the laters we tell our children which never come, the "when I get around to its" that we always seem to be missing. To enter Jerusalem is to follow the nagging voice of conscience, to resist turning your head and pretending not to see, to not let yourself off the hook by telling yourself nothing you could do would make a difference anyway.
What is your Jerusalem?
Which of your dreams have you put up on the shelf?
We like to control what happens to us, but love, like grace, is something that happens to us. It is beyond our control. It can be frightening to enter into a place where what happens may be beyond our control. It can be difficult to let go and let God.
Joseph Campbell exhorted us to follow our bliss, to risk leaving behind the comfort of the conventional and risk taking the road less traveled. Dylan warned, "He not busy being born is busy dying." Jesus calls us to life, calls us to take the risk of being born again, of leaving the comfort of the womb, the tried, the true, the comfortable, the letter of the law, so that we may live fully. He called us not to safety but to risk. He called us to be true to ourselves.
Jesus didnít die on the cross we could have eternal life. He died on the cross in order to live until he died.
Bill Dols is an Episcopal priest, editor of the Bible Workbench, and author of "Just Because It Didnít Happen," a collection of sermons from which I took the metaphor of entering Jerusalem. In one of his sermons Dols writes, "Easter is not about a dead man arising and walking out of an empty tomb. Easter isÖthe promise of new life that comes out after finally entering Jerusalem, going to the temple and confronting, stopping, interrupting the arrangement and dying for the sake of life."
I fear not death, but half-living. By making the experience of God the dominant factor in my life, I am inspired to reject the life-denying compromises I have made. I am inspired to enter my Jerusalem, a place where I may not be able to control what happens. By risking my self I save it. But it is only by risking dying that I can avoid a living death.
By choosing to follow Jesus rather than worship him, I believe I am practicing the religion of Jesus rather than the religion about Jesus. His purpose was to help us live this life rather than an afterlife. His good news is that this more abundant life, a life in the light of God, is available to us all.